“Love me, Jesus!” screams Tall Dwarfs’ Chris Knox during the brilliantly absurd Cant. Like the lyrics which filtered through the Tall Dwarfs discography, Knox is never short of a good quote.
Speaking to Forced Exposure, Knox once described the band’s early live performances as “two minutes of song followed by five minutes of fucking around.”
The New Zealand lo-fi odyssey, led by Knox and accompanied by Alec Bathgate, can be defined as one of the lost bands, fermenting in the broth that would become one of the tastiest in the early ’80s, spearheaded by none other than Flying Nun. (Where Tall Dwarfs eventually ended up with their second EP, Louis Likes Hi Daily Dip and would remain under the label’s wing until their final album, 2002’s The Sky Above the Mud Below.)
Stripped-back Velvet Underground homage, Tall Dwarfs unashamedly word-vomited humours poetic snippets to a 4-track akin to the campfire crackle.
And with Unravelled: 1981–2002, the bands new compilation facilitated by Merge Records, we see Tall Dwarfs trimming the fat. Not that there was much of that to begin with; a journey consisting of six LPs and seven EPs, Unravelled: 1981–2002 is condensed into a 55 song manifestation. Perhaps too long to digest in one sitting (particularly in this day age), Unravelled is the perfect snapshot into one of the most influential lost bands.
Tall Dwarfs were thrillingly eccentric but not in a pretentious academic way. They were just two normal blokes, and while New Zealand had a few bands that weren’t afraid to mix the odd with the conventional – Christchurch’s The Gordons springing to mind; the great collective that would go onto become New Zealand’s finest exports in Bailter Space – Tall Dwarfs’ lo-fi methods gave them a homely kind of vibe that very few others dared to entertain.
They dispensed their art in skeletal ways, and after their previous band Toy Love, Knox and Bathgate took a wicked U-turn that would become Tall Dwarfs. Again, this speaking to New Zealand’s Audioculture, Knox said, “The bass player’s always the real muso of the group and thinks he knows everything, and the drummer is just a fuckwit, so it’s much easier to be without them.”
It’s the kind of attitude that has gone on to inspire the likes of trans-Tasman cousin, Gareth Liddiard.
Though the band was dubbed as an excuse for two mates to “get together, drink beer, watch shitty old movies, and do some recording and drawing,” listening to Unravelled: 1981–2002 and here we find a band stringing their audience along. In between the in-jokes and tomfoolery, Tall Dwarfs captured a unique poetic magic.
The humour is evident from the band’s first EP, Three Songs; a facet that’d never shake, which instead became their finest attribute. With Luck or Loviliness (“Kicking peoples’ skills and teaching them a thing or two”), Paul’s Place, the buzz-saw frenzy of Attack of the Munchies (“I’ve got no legs/ They look like eggs”), and of course the fantastically titled Waltz of a Good Husband and Self-Deluded Dreamboy. The latter starting off with the kind of rhythms AC/DC may have fucked about with at a time.
They were positively snide, too (“Damn the beautiful people in the beautiful magazines” – Beauty), as well as unafraid to wear their Beatles worship on their sleeve. The words ‘Tall Dwarfs’ and ‘beautiful’ never made for likely bedfellows, but with Pictures on the Floor and Shade For Today, they produced the kind of songs The Brian Jonestown Massacre have tried to write 100 times over. Meanwhile, the melodic chime-scapes of Crush, Carpetgrabber and The Slide showcased that conventional songwriting almost came too easily to them.
Tall Dwarfs were slacker before it was even a thing. Undoubtedly influential towards the likes of Stephen Malkmus, the late Daniel Johnston and Robert Pollard, the mere mention of this would probably draw a sneer from the band.
It has to be said, though. Tall Dwarfs were outlier punk stripped to the bare bones, and for those not familiar with the band’s cannon, Unravelled: 1981–2002 is very much your gateway.
Unravelled: 1981–2002 is out now via Merge Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.